CPRE and Sustain’s Feeding the Future conference outlines local solutions to global food crisis

Local food networks could play an increasingly vital role in feeding our future population, according to experts at a Norfolk food conference.

The challenge of feeding mankind's burgeoning population from the earth's finite natural resources is a complex problem.

But amid the overwhelming conundrums of Third World poverty, climate change and economic imbalances, there could be a home-grown solution to this global crisis.

That was one of the conclusions of experts at a conference in Norwich yesterday, which discussed the importance of local food networks in building a resilient, sustainable food economy.

The Feeding the Future event, held at Dragon Hall on King Street, brought together more than 50 delegates including farmers, social entrepreneurs, councillors and countryside managers.

They heard how improved connectivity between consumers, suppliers and growers could not only ease the environmental burden of mass-produced commodities, but also create social cohesion, boost employment and foster a sense of community.

And this back-to-basics approach is already paying dividends in Norfolk, where short supply chains have helped revive high streets, kept businesses and communities thriving, and reduced carbon emissions through low food miles.

Most Read

Despite its status as a stronghold for commercial agriculture, the county has a healthy local food network whose value has been outlined in a report commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), due to be published in June.

The From Field to Fork study surveyed 58 food outlets within a 2.5-mile radius of central Norwich, and found that 48 of them sold 'local food' from more than 150 suppliers located within a 30-mile radius, encompassing most of Norfolk.

The local food web mapped in the report supports more than 1,400 jobs, with 15,700 weekly customer visits to these outlets generating �10.6m per year in sales of local foods.

One of the authors of the report, environmental policy expert Karen Gardham, said: 'There is a strong demand for local food in Norwich. People say they like the convenience of shopping in a supermarket but if you have got an area where you have butchers, bakeries and lots of other shops, people can take advantage of that. Local food is not just about lovely artisan jams which cost �4 a pot. It should be about things we eat every day.

'There is a real issue of commodity farming versus local food. A quarter of shoppers do not buy more local food because of availability or choice. However, there may be a perception issue here because Norwich is actually a very a good place to buy local food and there is a wide variety.'

The report will make a series of recommendations to local authorities, including that joint marketing of small food businesses should be helped through a Norwich Food Guide, that councils develop procurement strategies which make it easier for local suppliers to sell to the public sector, and that planning conditions are imposed which encourage supermarkets to source supplies locally.

Norfolk farmer Henry Cator said there was no conflict between commercial farming and local food.

'There is an antipathy between the two but I would hope we can open up a dialogue between the farming industry and these other concerns so we can work with them in a new way,' he said.

'Commercial farming seems to have got a bad name, but what business is going to survive without making a profit? There are still 160,000 farmers in this country, but they sell to a very few outlets who hold virtual monopolies. It makes farmers very weak sellers and it is very easy to exploit them.'

The conference was organised the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming.

Its keynote speaker was Lady Caroline Cranbrook, the vice president of the CPRE, who famously helped defeat plans for a new supermarket in Saxmundham in Suffolk, after researching the sizeable food network which was threatened by it.

She said: 'You get nowhere unless you have evidence. So I interviewed 81 shops selling food in the area and found they were sourcing regional food from nearly 300 suppliers.

'My conclusion was how tremendously important these small shops were. You cannot start a small business without small shops. Effectively they are the seed bed of the food businesses.

'The importance of local food webs is that we are entering a period of great food instability and we are going to have to feed a lot more people living in cities with less resources.'

Tim O'Riordan, a professor of environmental sciences at the UEA and president of CPRE Norfolk, said the world was reaching a 'tipping point' in its ability to feed the growing global population, with factors including rising wealth in developing economies like Brazil, Russia, China and India, coupled with a decline in the availability of fertilisers like phosphorous and potash.

'We are already at the point where the tolerance of the planet is unable to take this level of onslaught,' he said. 'If every person in China drank a bottle of beer a day then there would not be enough wheat in the world to sustain it.

'The answer for most people is more technology-driven agriculture, more genetically-modified, more plant genetics and land efficiency, but the institutions who try to regulate this are weak and divided, and there is no cohesion in dealing with these pressures.

'The global economy is no longer able to offer employment and investment, but it is producing all the wrong things – alienation, unemployment, and the breakdown of families and communities.

'The food system cannot be resolved on a global scale. We need local reliance. It is not something that is 'nice to have'. It is something which is vital. Without it, we will not survive. The economy is creating the scope for a completely new model, and we must grasp that opportunity now.'

Other speakers included Norfolk County Council planner, Phil Morris, who said 66,000 new houses were proposed for Norfolk between 2010-2026, and that new development could be seen as an opportunity for food-growing initiatives.

Mike Mack, from Easton College, outlined the strengths of Norfolk's farming industry, with a skilled labour force and world-class scientific knowledge base at the Norwich Research Park well placed to take on global food supply challenges.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter